Maasja Ooms has a love for teenagers. And this love shines through in every scene in Punks, in which she follows a group of Dutch youngsters at a farm in France.
They are there under a temporary supervision order, because their parents cannot, or will no longer, take care of them. A moving and impressively sincere record of the confusing process of growing up.
Watching Masja Ooms’ Punks makes you wonder how she managed to gain their trust, as they seem to have no inhibitions whatsoever in front of her camera. They rap, dance, swear, argue, fight, cry and sulk. Basically they do everything we expect of their youth. She shows them in all of their complexities: tough and tender, cheerful and confused, hurt and hopeful, caring and cheating, loving and hating.
She never comments, instead letting all the words, looks and actions speak for themselves. Now and again she poses a question, out of genuine interest, generating honest answers.
Ooms was invited to visit the farm after a screening of Alicia, her previous documentary on a young girl waiting for a foster family. She went to France and ended up staying for five weeks and making plans on shooting the documentary.
The lack of an intimidating crew – Ooms did it all on her own – must have contributed to the intimate feel of the documentary. The boys let her film them in all kind of situations, however embarrassing or painful. All the while you can feel the respect and understanding she has for them.
The film focuses mainly on Mitchell and Jahlano. Mitchell receives frequent visits from his father, who gradually discovers his son is not the only one responsible for their cumbersome communication. You watch their conversations, driven by dynamics developed over a long period of time, with both of them not being able to break the vicious circle. It is painful, confronting and insightful to watch.
Jahlano is another tough cookie: he raps about guns and drugs but breaks out in tears talking about his mother. Underneath his gangster cap he is just a boy longing for love.
Ooms had the fortune of filming when a girl arrives at the house, which completely changes the dynamics of the group. Like in any group of young male animals, a competition for attention commences – causing damage to the harmony which existed among them. The developments make for fascinating footage, edited in a smart way to indicate how she unconsciously turns their worlds upside down, just by sharing a cigarette or accompanying them on a chore. Hormones are raging, turning gangsters into puppies and back again into vengeful fighters.
It is obviously Ooms’ accomplishment that the film gives you the idea you’re actually learning something about the way teenagers feel and think – but mostly feel. She manages to come close, literally and figuratively, presenting some nice cinematography along the way.
She films with feeling, without ever getting sentimental or sensationalist. It is all about being at the right place, at the right time. When the girl and one of the boys escape the house and everyone’s looking for them frantically, she captures the couple wandering back in, but she doesn’t snitch, just keeps on recording whatever develops from the situation.
Like a whodunnit the truth about the incident slowly unravels, showing both the complexity and the simplicity of the teenagers’ inner world.